Genomics has created significant changes in how we view ourselves, as well as how we create and manufacture products that affect our health, well-being, and even our environment. One change that’s been controversial since it was introduced more than 20 years ago is the genetic modification of food and crops.
Genetically modified organisms (GMO) has not yet been shown to be harmful to human health, and has the backing of many medical and scientific societies, including the World Health Organization, U.S. National Academy of Science, American Medical Association, and the European Commission.
However, consumers are increasingly seeking to avoid the presence of GMO in food, opting to purchase foods labeled under the USDA’s National Organic Program (since organic food, under U.S. law, cannot contain transgenic or otherwise altered organisms), or private certifiers like the Non-GMO project. The American market for organic foods is estimated at about $40 billion, and continues to expand.
To meet this consumer demand (and follow federal and European regulations), the organic food industry is required to ensure that organic foods contain no — or nearly no — GMO components. In Europe, this threshold is strict, at no more than 0.9 percent GM. In the U.S, looser standards prevail, but some federal legislation and state laws are aiming to adopt the 0.9 percent threshold.
Meanwhile, some retail sellers of GM-free and/or organic foods have attempted thresholds approaching zero. Such efforts have led to a new role for analytical chemistry: the analysis of foods for GMOs, or the metabolites and protein products produced by these inserted genes.
New Definitions of GM
In short, a genetically modified organism has traditionally been one that has had a gene inserted in it from a different species. However, more recent approvals have included products that have an inserted gene from another part of the same genome. Still other variants of GM include genes that include regulatory changes, without actually expressing proteins themselves, and the results of gene editing (like CRISPR-Cas9), which aim at precision splicing of DNA to cause some effect in a mature plant (or animal).
New applications of chemistry
These technological changes and changing consumer demands have resulted in several different testing methods, and the need for analytical chemists involved in food testing to adopt new techniques. These methods include:
While the safety of GM foods is a matter of some controversy, the popularity of organic and non-GM food is increasing rapidly. This phenomenon is creating new commercial opportunities for farmers, food processors, and consumer food companies — and analytical chemistry is playing a more important role in determining the presence or absence of GM products.
Feel free to reach out for a conversation about how to equip your lab to meet the analytical demands of this quickly growing field.